Univision, ABC seek hip Latino viewers

Jorge Ramos leads Fusion to attract younger audience
2013-02-24T00:00:00Z Univision, ABC seek hip Latino viewersthe Washington Post the Washington Post Arizona Daily Star
February 24, 2013 12:00 am  • 

DORAL, Fla. - On Jan. 18, Univision's star anchor, Jorge Ramos, arrived at the U.S. Supreme Court for a high-profile interview with special appeal to his massive audience.

Ramos, by far the most recognized and respected face of Spanish-language news in the United States, greeted Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the self-styled "Wise Latina" who'd made history as the first Hispanic on the court.

Before the cameras rolled, though, Sotomayor - who was born into a Puerto Rican family in the Bronx - requested a small favor.

"She asked me, 'If I have a problem with my Spanish, please help me with my translation,' " Ramos recalled one recent afternoon in his spare corner office at the Univision studios in the Miami suburb of Doral.

"Sotomayor, she's fantastic, but she struggles with Spanish," Ramos says. "She spoke Spanish very slow."

And, indeed, just minutes into the interview about her memoir, Sotomayor - who speaks good but somewhat labored Spanish - was groping for a word. Rather than wait for a cue, she simply said it in English - "strengths" - and moved on.

Univision, already a goliath, sees another possible gold mine in the growing population of Latinos who, like Sotomayor, are more comfortable in English. The network is partnering with ABC News on a 24-hour news and information channel called Fusion set to debut in late summer.

The partners are especially interested in chasing second-generation Latinos, particularly millennials, the 20- and 30-somethings, who would rather communicate in English and may speak little or no Spanish.

Witness Julian Castro, the boyish Mexican-American mayor of San Antonio, thrust into national prominence by Democrats desperate for a Latino star even though he doesn't speak Spanish fluently.

It's a risky and complicated endeavor, but if they pull it off, they just might be creating a new cultural, economic and political force at the precise moment in American history when Hispanic power is in its steepest ascendance.

The goal is no less than establishing the new network and the rest of Univision's empire as the "Hispanic heartbeat of America," says Cesar Conde, the silky-smooth, 39-year-old president of Univision networks who was a White House fellow during the George W. Bush administration.

But beneath the grand rhetoric and the grand business plans, something much more subtle and much more interesting is at work. What they're engaged in is a process of anthropological discovery. They're trying to figure out who this new person is, this son of a Guatemalan maid who listens to the Black Keys and wants to be a doctor, this daughter of a Mexican fieldworker who watches "Girls" and is headed to Cornell in the fall. They're trying to figure out what this new person wants to hear and, of course, what this new person wants to buy.

They're trying to figure out how to talk to a new America. And they're still not sure how to do it.

They want to be edgy. They want to be unique. They want to be the place "the cool kids hang out." They want to be a broadcast network that moves fast, thinking "digital first."

They've seen the Pew Hispanic Center projections that Hispanics will soar from 17 percent of the population now to between 26 and 29 percent by 2050, and they know that a large chunk of that growth is expected to be the children of immigrants.

But they're still taking the measure of this new demographic. They've dispatched Alejandra Campoverdi, a former White House deputy communications director for Hispanic media under President Obama, to conduct focus groups with Hispanic millennials.

What she's discovering is that Latinos are way more complicated than you might think. For one, there's no single Latino profile. Mexicans, Dominicans, Cubans - they each have their nuances. She's talked with Latinos who profess to not being particularly attuned to so-called Latino topics, stuff too obviously intended to be about them or to reach them. She's found a community with hair-trigger sensitivities to any hint that someone might be pandering to them.

Yet she's also found Latinos who are sick of television programs populated mostly by white people, and shows where the only Latinos are Guatemalan maids and Mexican housekeepers. And she's found Latinos pining to see "different shades of brown."

Watching footage of Campoverdi's intimate chats, a couple of things become quite clear: Not only are Univision and ABC trying to figure out who these new Americans are, but these new Americans are trying to figure out who they are, too.

Executives for both ABC and Univision proclaim that they're committed to the new venture for "the long haul." And they have considerable leverage negotiating with cable systems for wide distribution. But the budget is puny by television standards, merely $270 million spread over five years.

Ramos calls Fusion an "experiment ... they might not want me to tell you this, but it is."

"It's not going to be easy," he adds.

During his off hours, Ramos says he's the family driver, hauling kids to water polo and the like. The 54-year-old anchor didn't speak English when he came to the United States from Mexico on a student visa as a 28-year-old, but his children were born here.

"When I talk to them, it's always in English," Ramos says. "When I talk to them in Spanish, they answer me in English." He may be the biggest thing in Spanish-language news, but his kids don't watch his show and their friends don't, either.

On those car rides with his kids and their friends, he says, they are always correcting him. He's chosen the wrong word. His grammar is incorrect. He's pronounced something wrong.

"I still have an accent," he says in a Mexican-inflected voice that is a kind of music of its own. "And I'll die with an accent."

The children of the people who watch him each night on Univision will have accents, too. He knows that.

They'll sound like Americans.

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